Lawmakers in North Carolina approved more severe punishments for rioters for the second time in three years on Thursday – a measure created in response to destructive demonstrations in 2020 following the death of George Floyd.
House Bill 40 now awaits the signature of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who vetoed a similar bill approved by the GOP-controlled General Assembly in 2021. Republicans gained enough seats in November to override a Cooper veto as long as one House Democrat joins them and the GOP majorities remain united.
The bill aims to protect the First Amendment rights of peaceful protestors while keeping them, law enforcement and property owners safe from violence during any riot.
Six House Democrats, including a chief sponsor of the bill, voted in support of the measure last month. In the Senate on Thursday, lawmakers passed the bill with a 27-16 vote – first-term Sen. Mary Wills Bode was the lone Democrat to vote in favor.
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House Speaker Tim Moore advocated for the bill both times it was proposed, noting current laws did not deter rioting and looting in downtown Raleigh in June 2020. On Thursday, he urged the governor to sign the “commonsense bill into law without delay.”
According to The Associated Press, social justice and civil rights advocates have consistently pushed back on the measures, claiming they target Black Lives Matter demonstrators and marginalized groups by trying to frighten them from taking to the streets peacefully.
Republican Sen. Danny Britt, of Robeson County, said on the Senate floor Thursday that the bill only targets “violent actors” causing mayhem, and not those peacefully demonstrating.
Other opponents say the language is too broad and laws addressing rioting are already in place.
Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham County Democrat, said the bill “doubles down on the punitive system that created the scars of mass incarceration that we’re still dealing with today.” She also said it will only “stifle free speech, criminalize protest and erode our First Amendment freedoms.”
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Jordan Monaghan, a spokesperson for the governor, said Cooper “has worked to increase public safety and protect constitutional rights, and he will review this legislation.” When he vetoed the bill in 2021, he deemed it “unnecessary” and said it is “intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”
The AP said the new bill would increase punishments already in place for the crimes of those willfully participating in a riot or inciting one to cover more severe circumstances like brandishing a weapon or causing serious bodily injury – possible resulting in longer prison sentences.
New crimes would be created for a rioter who caused a death or someone who incites rioting that contributes to a death. Assaults on emergency personnel would also result in higher felony penalties.
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The bill would also allow property owners who experience damage during protests to seek compensation against a perpetrator equal to three times the monetary damages. Supporters said this would help small business owners whose property insurance might not cover public disturbances.
Lastly, defendants accused of rioting or looting would have to wait for 24 hours before their bond and pretrial release rules are set, which could lead to a “cooling-off period” for those accused, according to supporters.
Nine states have passed similar laws since the nationwide riots in 2020, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, and the Tar Heel state is one of several currently considering new penalties for rioters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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